Looks from Common Gender

SHANGHAI — It was a case of the venue determining the launch city of men’s wear label Common Gender rather than Shanghai’s burgeoning reputation as an international fashion hub.

When looking at locations for the label’s first fashion show, Lea Chan, vice president and marketing director of parent company EPO Fashion Group, searched for venues in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, but settled on the former after discovering West Bund Art Center. Once an old aircraft factory, the industrial space has held onto much of its raw, urban interior, which was in keeping with the brand’s Nineties Berlin-inspired pop-up shop and edgy, angular fashion show on Tuesday.

The pop-up store and fashion show were attended by key Chinese influencers and business partners of the brand and featured a cast of international and local male models purposefully storming down the catwalk with a performance by American twin brother electro punk rock band The Garden.

EPO Fashion Group, parent company of women’s wear brands Mo & Co. and Edition 10; cosmetics brand REC, and children’s wear label Little Mo & Co. posted group sales of 3.5 billion yuan in 2017, or $555 million. Common Gender’s launch marks the Chinese company’s move into the domestic men’s wear market. The first store is slated to open on Aug. 8, with a simultaneous e-commerce launch.

EPO believes it has spotted a large potential market, that sweet spot between high fashion and fast fashion for younger males, which has not yet been addressed in China’s rapidly growing economy and rising middle-class. “[China has] designers like Xander Zhou, we have commercial brands, we have luxury brands, but actually we feel like there is something missing, the kind of brand that can capture the needs of the emerging generation,” said Nirokita Tang, content director of Common Gender.

“If you are talking about competitors, it’s quite narrow. We want alliances more than enemies,” said Chan.

An alliance is exactly what the group made in the form of famed independent Chinese fashion designer Xander Zhou, tapping him as creative consultant for the brand’s first collection. “We work together very closely and we try to help build a very distinctive brand for men’s wear in China. We think that’s a need and a desire for the whole community,” said Chan.

Common Gender’s debut collection was inspired by “new vintage” and “new rock ‘n’ roll” elements. Understanding that the concept of vintage and rock ‘n’ roll hold very different connotations in Mainland China and in the West; the pieces give more of a subtle nod to the theme and focus on the idea of being free-spirited.

“We are really reorganizing the inspiration regardless of the time and the region. Because some people say rock ‘n’ roll really is a Western thing or really rebellious, we are not really like that, but we are really taking the free spirit and the feeling of self-expression and rebuilding the core image. For example, there are little icons and badges of bands and slogans everywhere, but we have kind of said ‘no’ to that and have invented our own metal little badges. We have the word ‘intro,’ which is a very electronic music thing or a very modern thing and we really said no to the slogan thing,” said Tang.

The fall collection includes distressed denim, black leather, woolen outerwear, uniform-inspired workwear, and heavy, heeled boots. Prices range between 1,000 yuan and 4,500 yuan, or $159 to $716.

The gritty pop-up store’s focal point, a tower of vintage televisions with closed-circuit cameras relaying live footage, attracted much attention and proved social media friendly. The brand had to do a deep dive online and in antique stores across the country for these defunct pieces of electronics. Members of staff even went so far as to import old parts from abroad to construct the monitors, as they are not as readily available in Mainland China, which goes some way to demonstrating why the vintage theme is still somewhat of a novelty for local consumers.

Common Gender’s designs were created with Asian male body proportions in mind. The intention was to flatter their silhouette, rather than scale down sizes of designs that were initially created for the Western market, as many international retailers do. Key elements are shorter sleeves, tailored trousers and dark jackets with limited embellishments.

“We focus on the upper part, like the outerwear, more in our brand design,” said Chan. “We want more details on the upper part so we can extend the body figure, then we can focus on the legs and the length proportion.” Tang added, “We are simplifying the collar and simplifying the garment because if there is so much going on, it will make it look heavier and shorter in the entire image.”

Extra-small sizes will also be stocked, with the idea that women can also wear the collection, hence the brand’s name.

Common Gender’s brand positioning has placed EPO in an interesting sector of the market at an attractive time. “There remains a gap between fast fashion and high fashion in China, but this has been blurring over the past few years. Consumers are more confident in what they wear and are increasingly mixing and matching fast and high fashion,” said Mark Tanner, founder and managing director of China Skinny, the marketing, research and online agency specializing in Chinese consumers.

“Chinese males are behind Chinese females, but the gap is closing. We are seeing this across everything from fashion to beauty products, where growth is faster for males in most categories. The variances are quite regional; for example, the men in Shanghai are much more metro sexual in their spending habits than Beijing, but overall there is relatively less saturation in male fashion,” said Tanner.

“This is a brand that is actually operating in the capacity and volume of a commercial brand, but has actually devoted very much into the whole creative process,” said Tang. “So, it is a very special time for both China and us as a brand. It is never just about where it was produced, or what kind of company or volume they want.”

This might be the best strategy for now as, according to Tanner, leveraging domestic credentials in the fashion sector is not necessarily the way to compete with international brands in China. “In many segments, Chinese labels can be an advantage with nationalistic Chinese consumers, however, fashion is one category where foreign brands still have a perceived edge. That is changing though,” Tanner said.

EPO plans to open 360 Common Gender stores across Mainland China, and possibly internationally, and projects sales of 2 billion yuan, or $318 million, for the label by 2022. The whole group has plans to expand internationally, and hopes to cover 80 countries by the end of 2022, with overall revenue expected to reach 15 billion yuan, or $2.39 billion. “We want to erase the ‘China made’ thing into ‘China created’,” said Chan.